Today’s Readings: Dt. 4:1-2, 6-8; Ps. 15:2-5; Jas. 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27; Mk. 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Tikkun Magazine (the Israeli-American quarterly published by Rabbi Michael Lerner) recently published an article called “What if Jesus Had Been a Republican?” It rewrote three well-known Christian Testament scriptures to reflect the world vision and morality of the Republican Party. The piece was reproduced on the news and analysis website “AlterNet.” (Here’s the reference http://www.alternet.org/belief/what-if-jesus-had-been-republican?paging=off).
The first rewritten episode was entitled “The Lazy Paralytic.” It was about the paralyzed man whose friends removed roof tiles on a home to bring him into Jesus’ presence, when the Master was otherwise inaccessible because of the large crowds around him. The revised story has Jesus saying to the paralytic, “Can’t you take care of your own health problems? I’m sure that your family can care for you, or maybe the synagogue can help out.” . . . . What would happen if I provided access to free health care for everyone? That would mean that people would not only get lazy and entitled, but they would take advantage of the system. Besides, look at me: I’m healthy. And you know why? Because I worked hard for my money, and took care of myself.”
The second rewritten episode was called “The Very Poorly Prepared Crowd.” It re-imagined the feeding of 5000 people usually understood as the “Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes.” Only this time there was no feeding. Jesus says that would make the improvident crowd too dependent on authority figures like himself. People would never learn to think ahead and the lesson of self-sufficiency would be lost. So applying the principle of “tough love,” Jesus eats one loaf and one fish himself and gives the remaining four loaves and one fish to his twelve apostles.
Even more to our readings’ main point this morning, the reformulated story of “The Rich and Therefore Blessed Young Man,” has a rich man kneeling before Jesus to ask, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” When Jesus learns that the man has been born into wealth and privilege, Jesus’ admiration knows no bounds. However, he says, one thing is lacking in terms of God’s kingdom: “A bigger house in a gated community in Tiberias. Buy that and you will have a treasure indeed. And make sure you get a stone countertop for the kitchen. Those are really nice.” Jesus’ disciples are scandalized by all of this and ask, “But Lord,” they said, “what about the passages in both the Law and the Prophets that tell us to care for widows and orphans, for the poor, for the sick, for the refugee? What about the many passages in the Scriptures about justice?” 7. “Those are just metaphors,” said Jesus. “Don’t take everything so literally.”
I point you towards those rewritten parables not only because they made me laugh, or because we saw the Republicans in action at their convention last week, but because the last rewrite I mentioned is closely related to this morning’s readings. Those readings remind us of how religion, and specifically the person and words of Jesus can be distorted to reflect what Jesus calls “human traditions” rather than “God’s commandments.”
Today’s first reading from the Book of Deuteronomy reminds us of what the heart of God’s commandments actually was. The Deuteronomy reading shows Moses preparing the ex-slaves just escaped from Egypt for a law that centralizes social justice and care for the orphans, widows, (and immigrants). The Law of Moses was about setting up a community where what we today would call social structures protected society’s most vulnerable. Its Jubilee statute made provision for the periodic cancelling of debt and the return of land and homes to those who had lost them to the bankers. The Mosaic Law even forbade charging interest itself – as the words of today’s responsorial psalm remind us. In fact, up until the late Middle Ages, when capitalism began to emerge, charging interest on loans was considered immoral and contrary to Scripture. But then, of course, the Tikkun Jesus would remind us, “Don’t take everything so literally.”
Today’s second reading from the Letter of James’ stands firmly in the Mosaic tradition and defines religion in terms of specific acts directed towards the poor. In fact, James definition of pure and undefiled religion consists entirely in taking care of the orphans and widows in their affliction. That definition reflects the very attitude of Jesus himself. Recall that in Matthew 25 – our only unambiguous account of the final judgment – the entire affair is based on specific acts of compassion, even though those performing the acts were utterly unconscious of any spiritual motivation. Jesus welcomes into his Father’s kingdom those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the immigrant, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and imprisoned. Those who don’t do such things are condemned.
What I’m saying is that in James’ following of Jesus we find a definition of religion that is not only down to earth and practical, but calls for day-in and day-out embrace of society’s marginalized rather than leaving them to fend for themselves. James’ words, like those of Jesus, challenge us all to self-criticism about our own neglect of the poor and those at risk. The implication here is that God is not happy with us when our only response to poverty is “tough love” instead of the hands-on compassion and involvement Jesus demanded and exemplified.
However since James’ time – and especially after the 4th century, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, Christian faith became more abstract, intellectualized and (in terms of today’s Gospel reading) Pharisaic. Essentially “true religion” was transformed into simply believing things about Jesus rather than imitating him as healer, feeder, and champion of the poor. Since the fourth century, Christians are those who believe in God, the virgin birth, the miracles of Jesus, and his resurrection. Unlike Jesus’ words about the hungry and thirsty, none of those beliefs directly ask believers to be any different from others except inside their heads.
That leaves true believers free to act like the Pharisees Jesus confronts in today’s Gospel. So believers condemn “those others” who don’t see things as we do. Religion then becomes a cause of separation rather than of unity. This is especially true when the life choices of “those others” differ from those of believers. So the essence of Christianity becomes condemning the poor as “lazy.” Christians condemn Muslims as terrorists. Straight people condemn gays as immoral. Celibate men condemn married people for practicing contraception. And believers well beyond the age of child bearing condemn “those others” for resorting to abortion. Conservatives condemn liberals for not thinking as they do. Liberals do the same thing to conservatives. In virtually none of those cases is anything asked of the condemners except scorn and contempt for “those others.” It’s the others who must change, not us!
In today’s Gospel selection, Jesus calls us away from that kind of self-centered complacency to self-criticism. That’s the first step in identifying and changing the elements all of us find within ourselves that deprive us of compassion for others – especially for the widows, orphans and immigrants. The elements Jesus names as enemies of compassion sound like a description of the cultural values we “Americans” celebrate: greed, envy, arrogance, deceit, licentiousness – and the murder (as in wars) necessary to keep “our” stuff.
Taking the example of Jesus “more literally” calls us to the type of humility and personal transformation that recognizes our very selves in those we have been taught to despise as unworthy. The simple understanding of religion espoused by Moses, Jesus and James reminds us that its “pure and undefiled” form calls us to community, to seeing ourselves in “the least” – to our own humanization.
Here I recall a relevant sign I saw at a political rally I once attended. The sign reminded me of James’ doctrine-less definition of religion. It read simply “Do what God did: become human.”
That’s the essence of our Christian faith.
Don’t miss Monday’s second installment of the series on Mary Magdalene